No Time to be Stingy

April 27, 2020

There’s no good time to be stingy about public health. It costs more, and kills our own.

The Center for Disease Control budget was stripped for years. Congress treated whatever we couldn’t enjoy tomorrow as a waste and political pariah. That’s also true of our infrastructure, needed improvements to the electrical grid and the internet system. All have the capacity to be deadly when left without repairs and upgrades.

Cuomo’s father had a Commissioner of Health on our son’s paper route. Our sons were in the same scout troop. But what I really liked about David Axelrod was that he made NY healthier. You could smell the difference when you traveled. NY had smoke free rooms, hotels, and buildings before it caught on elsewhere. I also knew the lawyer suing Cuomo over the cigarette rules. His clients apparently thought heaven should forbid anyone or any companies from having to change their behavior for the public good. But David made our lives better.

Stingy politicians who stripped public health agencies of money and authority caused many of our troubles. Public health agencies should have power to take poison out of the air and water — but no, we have to convince legislators first. Public health agencies ought to have power to protect forests that remove carbon from the air — but, no, that’s a big political issue because some people would have to change their behavior for the public good.

A big issue a few years ago was that some state coastal commissions wanted to block building on the dunes in order to minimize flood damage. But the Rehnquist Court said no. Some people might have to change their behavior for the public good.

How expensive is the new corona virus? We’re going into a major national depression because of it. All of us will pay, not by pulling green bills out of our pockets, but because green bills won’t be in our pockets, bank accounts or credit cards to pull out. This is going to be very expensive.

But pandemics will happen again because we live too close to natural habitats. They will happen again because a warming climate will nurse new pathogens. And they will happen again because manufacturers, agribusinesses, oil companies and other extractive industries don’t want to take account of nature, the environment or the implications of their behavior on our health. If what we mean by freedom is the freedom to sicken everyone because we are too busy making short term profits, then we have freedom to die – not with dignity, but freedom to die young, sick and quarantined from everyone we love.

It’s our choice – either we agree to live by healthy business and manufacturing rules or we die by unhealthy ones. And one extra step – all changes have winners and losers. We have to be willing to find or create jobs and educational opportunities like we did with the GI bill for those who are disadvantaged by the changes. Our shelter-in-place rules for dealing with the current virus has winners and losers. We are all in this together and we have to be willing to bring everyone along somehow. That’s not charity; it’s necessary and it’s just plain fair.

And let’s be clear, taking care of public health, taking care of each other, is crucial for all of us, for our economy, for our standing and our leverage in the world. Public health is part of national security. It’s not optional.

— This commentary is scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on April 28, 2020.


Donald Herring, Elizabeth Warren’s brother

April 24, 2020

Mostly this blog is very political but just needed to say something. I never met Donald Herring. I’ve only met Elizabeth Warren once, years ago, but I have been a fan and admirer ever since, and I have had the pleasure of meeting her husband at professional meetings. I can only imagine how they feel. We all want the best for people we know and admire, and for our heroes. I am very saddened.


Trump’s Malfeasance Goes Viral

April 20, 2020

I read the Times’ description of the Administration’s snafus through my tears because every snafu meant a large number of unnecessary deaths.

Warnings reached America in early January from Trump’s appointees, but he didn’t trust them. Warnings came from people who dedicated their lives to protecting the rest of us, who’d become experts and never gave a fig for what they could earn in private industry, because they were dedicated to protecting us, dedicated to the God’s honest truth, not to anyone’s political fortunes. So Trump labeled them the “deep state” and ignored them too.

Public health works by moving fast to contain and avoid disasters. It took a month for him to stop some travel from China. Then he took a victory lap while the virus spread. People kept trying to alert him, but he waited because it wouldn’t make his economic messaging look good. How many people had to lay down their lives for his political messaging?

National security, medical and public health experts, people in contact with doctors in China and elsewhere, watched the virus explode and kept urging action. But still he dallied, telling everyone this would blow over. God must have decided America needed some humility, so he sent us an idiot for a president.

Delay made everything harder and costlier. Sheltering in place got harder and longer because of how far the virus had been allowed to spread. Many have already died. Many couldn’t shelter in place – doctors, nurses and everyone who makes hospitals function; and others who do critically important jobs, as aides in nursing homes, people stocking grocery shelves, making deliveries or picking up garbage – all take risks daily. The poor are not in position to survive lengthy periods of unemployment. And they’ll be the first to die when his majesty decides we should go back to our places of work and play. He’s eliminated any good choices for the great mass of Americans. Working or staying home, many will die or lose their jobs and starve. Time and delay matter. Late steps don’t erase earlier failures – they leave us chasing an ever bigger problem.

The people most at risk are the very people he doesn’t want to help. Billions for corporate welfare but pennies for the poor. He’s turning on the mass of Americans, including many who thought he’d change things in their favor. Apparently, we’re all socialists now – Trump and Republicans are socialists for the rich, doing everything government can do for them, while Biden, Sanders, Warren and the Democrats are trying to provide for the rest of us, for those who need the help.

After 9/11, I explained to a Republican congressman that his rural constituents also suffered from the attack because friends and family had found jobs in the big city. The congressman’s response to me was “I didn’t think of that.” Pandemics are different. They spread; they don’t stop at state or community lines.

The Constitution doesn’t stop us from electing fools and misanthropes. It will always be up to us. I could say “God help us,” but God, for whatever reason, leaves it to us to help ourselves. This has been hard to write. It may have been hard to hear. But the best thing Trump could do for America is to resign.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on April 21, 2020.


What Lessons Will We Learn?

April 13, 2020

I’d like to look beyond this epidemic, beyond the people telecomputing and those taking bicycles to work instead of busses, beyond our fears of going to meetings to see and greet each other and work together, beyond elbow bumps at funerals as I had to recently, and think ahead to a better future.

What will we learn from this epidemic? We’ve faced horrible situations before and managed to improve ourselves based on those experiences. We don’t seem to have retained much of the lessons of 1918 but we’ve bettered ourselves in the face of other disasters.

In the Great Depression of 1929 through the 30s, many of us learned that being out of work is out of control for many of us. As the economy contracts there are fewer jobs, and people are forced to join lines to soup kitchens. We learned a degree of solidarity and learned to put compassion above blame. We learned supporting each other we could make a better world for all of us.

Others saw the mistreatment of workers. The so-called settlement houses of the early 20th century were largely efforts to improve the lives of immigrant workers. I took a college course from Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, who witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which killed 146 workers, and then dedicated herself in a succession of positions to make work safer. President Franklin Roosevelt brought her to Washington where she became the soul of the New Deal.

Out of those experiences came Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and labor laws that substituted collective bargaining for lockouts and strikes.

Then just as we began to recover from the Great Depression, we were tossed into the unimaginable horror of World War II – a struggle which took 60 million lives around the globe. Then too we responded with love and compassion to our veterans coming home, without regard to their where they came from or how they prayed. United, we had the political will to pass the GI Bill that put many veterans through schools they could not have afforded before. The progress we saw as a result was not an accident – we soon had the world’s best trained workforce and it showed in the accomplishments of our people. We had invested in the people of America, invested in each other, and together we reaped the harvest of good jobs, good incomes, real education and better health and housing.

Internationally we need to learn that everyone’s welfare matters: China and Iran affect our health here, freedom and democracy are indivisible. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the effort to draft the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We’ve had nothing to fear from countries that adopted freedom and democracy.

I spent a decade providing legal services to the poor and met a lot of wonderful people in the process. Recently I’ve been working with a different organization that helps the needy and, again, I’ve been impressed by people working as hard as they could to support themselves, their families and their communities. Climbing out of poverty is hard as people don’t have the resources to deal with problems that are almost inevitable – unexpected bills, illness, economic changes.

What lesson will we learn now? Will we learn the lesson that everyone’s health matters, that our ability to work and play depends on everyone else’s health too? Will we remind ourselves that unemployment and poor working conditions are problems we share, not just someone else’s problems?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 14, 2020.


Price gouging on the coronavirus

April 12, 2020

Trump’s major contribution to the pandemic is helping private companies price gouge for ventilators so states would have to strip their budgets to pay for them. Thank you, Mr. Trump. How very patriotic. But then is he really an American?


What is Mr. Trump Accomplishing?

April 6, 2020

Trump insists on painting a rosy picture. He’s great. He’s solved every problem. We were the first to stop people coming from China. We have great tests. And medical professionals have all they need.  Things are so good that America will be going to church for Easter. And it would be a shame not to have sports to watch.

That’s a happy picture. The risk is that people will abandon fears and get together without worrying about social distance or washing their hands, avoiding groups or contact. Cabin fever isn’t fun. It takes character to stay at home and find ways of getting needed supplies without going into grocery and drug stores and other places that have what we might need.

When I have to leave my home in Albany, I see friends staying six feet apart, chatting, obviously enjoying each other, but without ever getting close. People give me a wide berth or I give them one. Yes, occasionally a friend or neighbor and I will talk across the lawn, hedge, or drive, but we stay much further apart than we ever would were it not for the virus. And by the way my neighbors are angels, offering to shop for us, given that the difference in our ages means they are probably less vulnerable to the virus than we are. For the most part, we’ve found ways of getting what we need without exposing ourselves to the virus. And I also want our neighbors to be able to do the same and avoid any place where they could pick it up.

We check with folks in New York City. They tell us that people there also give each other a wide berth when they need to leave the house. Some are lucky enough to have a yard, balcony or somewhere they and their families can get fresh air and stretch their legs without contact with others, risking their health or becoming carriers for anyone else. But otherwise, there too, they’re staying home. And yes, the kids can’t go to school and everyone’s working from home.

So thanks to Governor Cuomo for making clear what needs to happen and laying down rules to see that it does. We have our differences on some issues but he is doing his level best to take care of New Yorkers. It’s not about how great he is and how he’s thwarted the virus, but about what we all need to do.

Not Trump. At least until recently, he didn’t bother to keep a social distance in his daily prime-time campaign appearances. He boasted about his good health and how he didn’t need to follow the rules. And he doesn’t fret about the people who will follow his example.

So the question is whether it will make a difference? It could make a big one. His loyal followers could suffer the virus disproportionately. That will give the virus a second life wherever people ignored the rules, and then contact will bring it back all over the country. This time we won’t have the Chinese to blame. He’s turned the Governor down on respirators, refusing to accept the professionals’ understanding that the way to fight this disease is to kill it wherever it is, before it spreads and gets to the rest of us. Is he trying to play politics with who is vulnerable to the illness? Or is he leading his own supporters along with the rest of us into the hell of coronavirus pneumonia?

I realize that the president, and some representatives, do not want to recognize that where health is concerned, we are all in this together and no one is an island. But nature will make it clear. We have to help each other or perish together.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on April 7, 2020.


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